‘and breathe…’ Unwraps The Layers And Power Of Grief Simultaneously: Review

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner

The stage is a lone perfect square, slightly elevated and covered with what appears to be gravel. The sight of it conjures up the saying ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’—a line from the Book of Common Prayer recited at burial services. 

and breathe… is a string of poems narrated by actor David Jonsson about the blanket of grief that covered writer Yomi Ṣode and his family when his mother’s sister—fondly referred to as Big Mummy—died. 

The complexities of illness and family appear to be ever more complicated by Black sensibilities and religious beliefs. Jonsson, playing Big Mummy’s great-nephew Junior, reflects regretfully that he wasn’t told about Big Mummy’s illness until it reached a critical stage. But comes to realise that her wishes to shroud the sickness in secrecy were simply being honoured. With pain in his face he concludes that black culture treats illness like a “wet dream”, tying up the sheets and hiding them away. In a raspy voice he expresses his dismay at Big Mummy’s faith in God despite her dire situation: “Big Mummy believed in God more than the NHS”. 

Layers of grief unfold like an atomic bomb when Junior relives the day the call came in that Big Mummy had deteriorated. The struggles surrounding responsibility; he felt he should be more concerned with the welfare of others before his own. The drowning in hopelessness, saying he saw “the lie in the truth”when the doctor said she had a week at best. The denial-fuelled joy, playing music at Big Mummy’s bedside as though the African rhythms had healing power. The denial-fuelled capriciousness; he narrates going away for a couple of days in an attempt to clear his head. Ending up in red-light districts and clubs. Raving to the anthem ‘Alright’ by Kendrick Lamar. Hoping being all right would become his reality.

The power of grief, however, steals the show. There is a heavy sense of deep injustice when Big Mummy is finally pronounced dead. It is as though Jonsson is advocating a resurrection on demand. He protests with a list of things she never did, like smoke or drink, or complain during her days as a carer coming face-to-face with racism. At the funeral, he recalls Uncle D telling Junior not to cry, for fear that the uncontrollable tears he held back, under the masculinity he was proud to show publicly, would surface. Grief is more than capable of engulfing us, so we do everything in our human strength not to become a casualty—drowned by fierce tears.

Grief’s power at its very best can often show itself in our reflections of how we discern the dead feel about our efforts in laying them to rest. One of the penultimate poems is Jonsson taking on the character of Big Mummy herself. It is laced with humour and a sense of nostalgia. Big Mummy says she is proud of the young men in her family, especially the six who carried her coffin on their shoulders. She also apologies that their first limousine ride wasn’t a more joyous occasion, surrounded by women. 

and breathe… truly captures the rollercoaster of grief, unwrapping the layers of the peaks and troughs. It also exemplifies our struggle against its power in our attempts not to allow it to breach our eyes and run down our faces. It plays with the idea that there is another side to death—the after-life where we reflect on events that are provoked by our absence. 

This brilliant dissection of grief is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 10 July 2021.

Words by Solape Alatise.

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